Ways of Speaking About the Human Response to Grace

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In a recent article, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Faith and Repentance,” I explained the problem with several common ways of speaking about the human response to grace. For example, saying that “God has done his part, now we must ‘do our part,’” reflects a full-fledged synergism that is neither Wesleyan nor biblical. How, then, can we carefully and meaningfully speak about the human response to the grace which brings us to faith, repentance, and salvation? This short article considers a few common words and terms.

  • Cooperate—as in, “we must cooperate with God.” The word “co-operate” can imply two equal or comparable actors/operators, and thus the kind of synergism that Wesleyans reject. If used, it needs to be carefully qualified, or it is likely to feed into the existing widespread misconceptions about the Wesleyan view of salvation.
  • Allow—as in, “allow God to work in your life.” This is better than speaking of co-operation since the human response to grace is first and foremost passive. However, the word “allow” makes me cringe because it draws the mind more to God’s dependence on us than our dependence on God as the gracious mover—as if God needs our permission to do anything.
  • Surrender—as in, “surrender to God’s work in your life.” This is better than the previous options since it emphasizes passive submission to the divine actor, who is viewed as the one bringing about whatever is happening. But “surrender” can view God as a hostile conqueror instead of a gracious mover, and our human response as one of relenting defeat rather than responsive love. This word is more questionable after conversion when all hostilities have ceased, God is our Father, and we no longer relate to him as an enemy (Rom. 5:10).
  • Yield—as in, “yield to his full control.” This is one of my favorite ways to refer to the human response to grace. To yield is to give up arguments or demands—to stop resisting—but does not imply hostility or force on God’s side. Also, there is a liberating and happy kind of yielding with which most people are familiar.
  • Let—as in, “let God have his way with you.” This is a synonym for “allow,” but it is commonly used in a more passive sense. Merriam-Webster defines “let” as “to give opportunity to or fail to prevent” (i.e., non-resistance, the key point in Wesleyan theology, rather than active permission, as suggested by the word “allow”). Our church sings the hymn “His Way with Thee,” which points to divine grace as the source of any and all good in the believer. In our sexually charged culture, the idea of letting God “have his way” may evoke sexual imagery, but we must remember that sex was given as a metaphor for the intimacy that God wants with his people (Eph. 5:32). Responding to grace is like yielding to the tender advances of a gentle lover and “letting” him sweep you off your feet (not kicking and screaming when he does it!).

Since it is impractical to define our terms every time that we use them, the goal is to find ways of speaking about the human response to grace that do not contribute to new or existing misconceptions about salvation. At least some of the popular misconceptions about Wesleyan and/or Arminian theology can be explained by our theologically imprecise ways of speaking, for which we must assume responsibility. If we believe that our doctrine is biblical, and we want to share it with others, then we should honor Scripture’s teaching and God’s glory in salvation by being careful in our ways of speaking about man’s response.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.